IN THE NEXT YEAR OR SO, Disney’s Epcot Center is slated for a slew of substantial renovations, adding more current Disney characters to the theme park’s iconic attractions to make them—in the words of one Disney executive—more “family, and more Disney.” Before that happens, we asked an Epcot-loving writer and photographer to take a trip through the current version of this retro-futuristic world and document what they saw.
We are on a time machine inside a giant golf ball. The history of communication unfolds before us. We snake past cave drawings and hieroglyphs, as the voice of Dame Judi Dench guides us through the dark.
Our time machine stops at the invention of movable type. Another voice comes from the dark. It asks us to remain seated; Spaceship Earth will resume its course shortly. Jason takes this moment to text his mom. We wonder if part of the multimillion-dollar, five-year overhaul of Epcot will include updates to the Spaceship Earth ride.
When I told my father why Jason and I were going to Epcot, he said, “I get it—it’s like visiting the Uffizi in Florence, before they renovate.”
Jason’s first visit to Epcot was in 1986, part of a sleepover trip with his junior high class. The kids traveled from Georgia to Florida via bus. My whole family visited Epcot every other Christmas, flown in by our grandparents, who had retired near Orlando. I don’t remember visiting them. I do remember flying from New York on Eastern Airlines, and that the in-flight meal had a Mickey Mouse placemat.
Outside the ride it is humid, and triumphant music plays from hidden speakers. Daisy Duck lets me give her a hug.
The Universe of Energy is already under construction—we are too late. The original ride was sponsored by Exxon. Visitors learned about the formation of fossil fuels while they “rode on sunshine.” Huge cars powered by photovoltaic cells carried 97 people at a time through a prehistoric landscape of animatronic dinosaurs. A Disney gossip blog reports that the U of E is slated to turn into a Guardians of the Galaxy ride.
“I wanna see the twain go by,” a boy tells his mom. Jason feels for the kid; his major complaint is also that more monorails should be passing by.
The Land pavilion includes a boat tour. It takes visitors through climates and scenes, followed by a working hydroponic greenhouse and fish farm. The voyage is an optimistic vision of sustainable harvest, sponsored by Chiquita. The boat ride is the Uffizi before renovation.
We are lifted in the air and flown above the earth. Wind and scents are puffed at us: fresh grass as we fly over the Serengeti, jasmine above the Taj Mahal. Soarin’ is the newest addition to the Land. The ride is a simulation of hang gliding. It is also the best ride Jason and I have ever been on. We stumble out on a high.
“I need a good picture of strollers, because that is literally the future,” says Jason.
Disclosure: we have a Disney app that lets us skip the lines at certain times. It is called FastPass+. I have a FastPass+ appointment for Space Mountain, my mom’s favorite roller coaster.
We board the monorail to the Magic Kingdom (another of the four theme parks within Disney World).
Our plan is to make a beeline for Tomorrowland, the predecessor to the Future World section of Epcot, but we see a cart that advertises paper silhouettes.
The girl who cuts my silhouette has been doing it for only 6 months; she admits that she graduated from art school, which helps. Jason and I marvel at the likeness and speed. We stumble away just as we did from Soarin’.
A vendor holds dozens of balloons within balloons. The inner balloons are shaped like Mickey heads. It seems like a metaphor for the bubble you are in at Disney. We buy one to photograph—but, also, I want one bad. The vendor says that if it pops, we can come back and get a new one!
The balloon costs $12.
Jason points out somebody’s clear backpack with a clear zipper pouch that holds a wad of cash. He says that is a metaphor for the Disney bubble as well.
He doesn’t take a photo because the wearer of the backpack has a deep wedgie.
It is strange to go on Space Mountain with no wait, no transition between the hot Florida sun and the pitch-black ride inside. I don’t regret skipping the 75-minute line that families without FastPass+ endured, but it feels wrong to have had no buildup.
Jason isn’t into Space Mountain. He says it is jerky. His favorite part was how much it made me scream. Now, due to technical difficulties, we are stuck on the PeopleMover. A recording tells us to stay in our car for our own safety.
This is great. Jason loves the PeopleMover and never wants to disembark.
Officially called the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover, the ride is like a behind-the-scenes tour of Tomorrowland. Our car glides on a track that wraps around and through buildings. A voice-over gives us trivia and New Age sounds. We watch the crowds below, then are pulled inside the rides.
As we drift through Space Mountain in the dark, people scream above and below. At one part of the PeopleMover, an original scale model of Epcot is on display. The model includes a church; it is a peek at the city of the future that never was.
No FastPass+ is needed for the Carousel of Progress. The attendant warns us that the ride takes 21 minutes, and that, once it starts, we can’t get off.
We rotate around a stage that features an animatronic family. We follow them from the 1920s to the recent present. Spoiler: no one dies despite the time that has elapsed, not even the pet dog. The ride was built for the 1964 World's Fair in New York by Walt Disney. It was sponsored by GE and was one of the most popular attractions at the fair. It is largely the same ride Walt designed, save for the “present” vignette, which depicts the early ‘90s.
Every scene ends with the family singing, “There's a great, big, beautiful tomorrow.” If enjoyment of the Carousel of Progress = dweebs, Jason and I are dweebs.
I have a FastPass+ appointment for the It’s a Small World boat ride. We go toward it, but halfway there Jason wants out. It becomes an emergency that we leave the Magic Kingdom. We must escape the high-pitched songs that are piped in, the Country Bears dancing, and the confetti bursting in the air.
Hundreds of strollers are parked outside The Seas With Nemo and Friends pavilion. This is the only Epcot Future World attraction that no longer has a sponsor, and the first to be based on Disney characters rather than utopian visions. It was originally The Living Seas, which was “dedicated to underwater life and the ocean’s potential for mankind.” Now it is dedicated to finding Nemo.
“It is nice how it comes when you least expect it,” Jason says, as a monorail zips above us.
Epcot is made of two parts: Future World and the World Showcase. The World Showcase sits across the lake from us. It is sort of the opposite of Future World. The pavilions celebrate the history, culture, and architecture of select nations, with attractions such as a lush, 200-degree film on France, an exhibit on Japan’s culture of cute, and Donald Duck in a sombrero.
A deep voice announces: “Ladies and gentleman, Epcot is proud to welcome you to the World Showcase Lagoon. ‘IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth’ will begin in just 15 minutes.”
“IllumiNations” tries to convey the past, present, and future of our planet through fireworks. It is not nearly as effective as the little girl we saw this afternoon—the one who suddenly walked on all fours and peered at us through her legs, because she was that happy.